With little warning, in early 2020 an unheard of virus called ‘COVID-19’ morphed into a global pandemic that disrupted every country and every inhabitant. No community was left untouched. And whilst we have all adapted, many industries are still navigating their way to a post-pandemic equilibrium. It’s a challenging time to be alive, a challenging time particularly to be a young adult, trying to set your sights on a future which seems to transform and mutate as quickly as the virus. If that seems tough, now imagine your chosen industry requires rigorous daily training in an activity considered non-essential, with close human contact, a specialized training space, physical contact with training partners, and often an overseas audition tour to try and find a job at the end. Welcome to ballet. For the young dancers on the verge of starting a career in today’s turbulent industry, it must be an incredibly frightening prospect to feel like the wind has been taken out from under your sails just as you’re preparing to navigate the treacherous gap between student and professional. Nevertheless, that is the reality full time dancers in their last few years of training have faced since the new decade began. Luckily there is one beautiful silver lining that always comes with hardship, and this pandemic has been no exception. Inspiring stories of determination and success – against the odds – always shine through the darker days, making the world seem a little brighter and the impossible just that little bit more possible, for all of us.
One such story is that of driven and talented young New South Wales born dancer Layla Gerrish. The ambitious seventeen year old fell in love with dance the very moment she first stepped into a dance studio at age five. At thirteen she took the next step in her dance journey, training at Premiere Studios in Tuggerah on the Central Coast, and then completed the Australian Ballet’s ITP program. By 2019 Layla’s world expanded spectacularly when she travelled to New York to participate in the YAGP finals, a momentous achievement, and an experience she credits with making her fall in love with New York. This big new world that Layla was just discovering was about to suddenly get very, very small however - not just for Layla but for all of us. “In March 2020 my bags were packed, ready to travel to Florida to participate in the ADCIBC (a Youth International Ballet Competition). Unfortunately, Covid was popping up everywhere and five days before our flight, borders started to shut and we had to cancel.” Layla recalls. Fortunately ADCIBC adapted quickly and Layla was invited to send in video auditions, “It was through these auditions I was offered a scholarship to attend Ellison Ballet’s fulltime Professional Training Program in New York.” Says Layla, who was just fifteen years old at the time. Full of excitement, and a good deal of nerves, Layla made preparations to move to New York to commence her training, but she’d have to do it alone: “Mum couldn’t get a return flight” she explains, “I had to travel to New York on my own. Getting on the plane and saying goodbye to my family and friends for 8 months was the hardest thing I have ever done.” No doubt the following months of training also held their fair share of bittersweet moments for Layla, by March New York was already experiencing high numbers of COVID cases, a number that would continue to skyrocket into the hundreds of thousands. She had also never lived away from home before, let alone overseas. Cooking, cleaning, house-keeping and commuting were all new hurdles to be faced and overcome. At the same time, in spite of the challenges, Layla was living the dream of dancing in the Big Apple, “Never in a million years would I have imagined, 2 years [after the YAGP Finals], I would be living and training in New York on my own.” Layla has just recently returned home (after the dreaded two week quarantine stint), to enjoy a few months with her family and friends, and whilst America enjoys their summer vacation Layla will be toughing out another extended lockdown in New South Wales while the state attempts to get back to a COVID-normal once more. If all goes well she’ll be jetting back off to America in September to resume training with Ellison Ballet in their prestigious Professional Training Program. It hasn’t been an easy ride, and it’s probably only going to get more challenging still. But if Layla and the rest of Australia’s talented pre-professional dancers can triumph in today’s volatile landscape, then they’re going to be the most un-stoppable generation of dancers yet.
We organised a photoshoot with Layla and photographer Justin Reid in New York’s Central Park earlier this year, and caught up with the talented young dancer during her current break to chat about her dance journey and the experience of training overseas in a world after COVID. See the photoshoot and read Layla’s inspiring interview below!
E: What’s your earliest memory of dance?
Layla Gerrish: My earliest memory is dancing a ballet with my best friend to the song ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’.
E: When did you know that ballet was something you wanted to pursue professionally?
LG: To be honest, for as long as I can remember I have wanted to be a ballerina.
E: What for you is the most challenging aspect of dance?
LG: There are lots of things that make dance challenging. Training overseas away from home is certainly one of them. Another is the pressure I put on myself to do well. So when I’m not dancing as well as I would like to, or things don’t go to plan, the frustration and disappointment I feel can be challenging. I have also had a few injuries which have been pretty challenging to manage at times.
E: In what moments do you feel happiest as a dancer?
LG: The detail of every movement in ballet is so complex, it goes without saying that it’s a very happy moment when you master a step you have been working on for a while. I also feel happy when I’m able to relax and express the emotion of each step in a dance. Being on stage and being able to do this for an audience is an extra special feeling. Dancing with friends who share the same passion is also very special. Dancing together through the fun times and the tough times creates an unspoken bond which I know will last a lifetime.
E: What has the experience of moving overseas (and during a pandemic!) at such a young age been like for you?
LG: Moving to New York in the middle of a pandemic sure was an experience. Boarding a flight on my own and leaving Australia for 7 months knowing there were no return flights if something went wrong was pretty scary. I just had to trust everything would be fine. Thankfully it was.
Ballet classes were difficult to begin with. This is because I started the course a few weeks late due to the Australian travel ban, had to get used to wearing a mask 100% of the time and had to adjust to the Vaganova style of ballet taught by Ellison Ballet. Shopping, cooking, cleaning for myself for the first time also made the first few weeks in New York pretty tough. Luckily I had a beautiful roommate and some lovely new friends who helped me adapt and adjust quickly.
Even though there were challenges throughout the year (like catching Covid and having to isolate in a small room for ten days just before exams) I absolutely loved dancing and living in New York. It has definitely been a life changing experience for me.
E: What does a typical dance day look like for you at the moment?
LG: I’m on holidays at the moment but a typical day when I was training in New York generally involved a 10min subway ride and then a 15 min walk to the studio, a 45 min warm up, a 3 hour ballet class, a pointe or variation class and then a character, contemporary or conditioning class. I would then spend time in the afternoon / evening stretching and going over class work.
E: What have been some standout moments/achievements you’ve had with dance so far?
LG: Standout moments and achievements would be performing at the 2019 Youth American Grand Prix Finals in NY, being selected to perform at 2020 ADCIBC in Florida, participating in the 2020 School of American Ballet and the Dutch National Ballet Summer Intensive programs over Zoom, and being offered a scholarship to train at Ellison Ballet in their Professional Training Program in New York.
E: Who inspires you?
LG: My class mates inspire me every day. Their motivation to grow and challenge themselves is inspirational. I am also inspired by my dance teachers and their amazing dedication to helping their students achieve. Watching and following professional dancers in the industry is also inspirational and a great way to stay motivated. Dancers who inspire me include Maria Khoreva, Anna Oi, Marianela Nunez, Thomas Dilley, Skyla Brant, Misty Copland, Jolie Lombardo and Lauren Lovette.
E: What is something about you people may not know?
LG: My favorite past time is spending time at the beach swimming and surfing.
E: What do you love most about the dance/ballet industry?
LG: I love that being part of the dance industry is like being part of a big family in another whole world. Only those in the industry really understand and know what I do. Sometimes I feel like I live a double life.
E: What (if anything) would you like to see improve with the dance industry?
LG: I know it’s impossible, but I sometimes wish the industry could create a ‘one stop shop’ for when times get tough. Somewhere dancers could go and see a physiotherapist, chiro, massage therapist, podiatrist, personal trainer, a psychologist and a nutritionist all at the same place.
E: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
LG: One of the best pieces of advice I have achieved would be to, “enjoy my own journey”.
E: What always makes you laugh?
LG: I’m very good at laughing at myself. So me trying to cook a meal without setting the fire alarm off or navigating my way through New York without getting lost is pretty funny.
E: Do you have any pre-performance rituals?
LG: I like to have some quiet time before a performance. This helps me to connect to the present moment and calm my nerves. I also like to go through the dance in my head and visualize it before I go on stage.
E: Dance can be an extremely challenging as well as mentally and physically demanding profession – What makes the tough moments worthwhile for you?
LG: The thing that helps me get through the tough times is knowing that there is always two ways to look at a situation when something goes wrong or when something doesn’t go to plan. I have learnt that looking at the positives and thinking about the good that can come out of a tough situation is much easier than focusing on the negatives. Pushing through a challenge, no matter how big or small, and coming out the other side physically and mentally stronger, is definitely what makes the challenge of dancing worthwhile.
E: Favourite pre-dance snack?
LG: I generally like a small quick snack such as a banana or nut bar.
E: And lastly, any final words of advice for other aspiring dancers?
LG: Having a positive mindset is really important. I have learnt that your brain can be your best friend or it can be your worst enemy. A positive outlook will always lead to better dancing.Follow Layla's dance journey on instagram
Article by Elly Ford
Photography by Justin Reid, edited by Energetiks